When was the last time logistics contributed a really big idea to management thinking? Just in time? Lean manufacturing? Trace and track? Even the most recent of these, trace and track, which has now been around for more than a decade, can’t claim to be new. And, besides, although it’s proved a potent competitive weapon, I’m not sure it counts as a truly big idea in the pantheon of management megathoughts.
So does logistics have any more big ideas to contribute to management thinking? In a world in which globalisation is a potent force, you’d have think so. After all, the notion of globalisation envisages the world as a giant supply chain.
I raise this issue because one of the big themes that dominated this year’s World Economic Summit at Davos in Switzerland was the question of innovation. New ideas are now one of the most valuable currencies in business. As the most recent edition of The World’s Most Respected Companies, an annual survey by the consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers, points out, innovation, vision and strategy are now seen to be key contributors to corporate reputation.
An ability to aid innovation is becoming a precondition of winning a seat at the top table in many companies. Looked at the other way, if logistics pros seem like dumb brains to their management colleagues, they’re hardly likely to enhance their reputations in the company. So how is this thirst for ideas going to be satisfied?
Let’s be clear about one thing. You don’t just stumble across the best ideas by accident. At least, very rarely. Those companies which have built a reputation for successful innovation – BP, Apple and Siemens are mentioned in PwC’s report – make a positive effort to develop ideas. And what’s been particularly interesting is the way that techniques for developing ideas have themselves evolved over the past few years.
Take one of the oldest techniques of them all, brainstorming. It was Linus Pauling, the Nobel chemistry laureate, who said: ‘The best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.’ But the most effective kind of brainstorming involves more than just sitting round a table staring at the ceiling while your coffee gets cold.
Those who’ve used brainstorming to outstanding effect – Ideo, the Silicon Valley design company behind the Palm Pilot and other innovative products springs to mind – have refined it into a fine art. Ideo calls brainstorming its ‘ideas engine’ and has developed seven guidelines to make it more effective.
First, keep the duration to a maximum of an hour – even the finest brains tire after that time. Second, state the problem precisely and try to focus on a customer rather than corporate issue. In other words, if you don’t know exactly what you’re trying to have ideas about you won’t be very successful. Third, don’t interrupt the flow of ideas by criticising or debating. The time for winnowing out the most viable ideas comes later. During a brainstorming session, you want any ideas.
A playful approach
Fourth, encourage a playful approach. If you get too serious everybody gets uptight and then people start to worry so their minds focus on not looking fools in front of colleagues instead of coming up with that idea that may sound off-the-wall but turns out to be a winner. Fifth, count the ideas as you go along and try for a target, perhaps 50 or 100. It creates a sense of momentum. Besides, it’s a great way to encourage reticent members of the team to join in – they won’t feel they’ve contributed unless they help reach the target.
Sixth, capture ideas in writing on flipcharts or whiteboards. Writing an idea down crystallises it – makes it sound more real. Besides, as the walls fill with ideas, the team starts to believe it’s making progress and, hopefully, it is. Finally, get your brain working before you start the session with some kind of exercise such as a word game. No sports person would go on the field without a warm-up and the mind is just as important as the body.
But I suspect the problem for most senior logistics professionals is that they don’t think they have the time for this kind of blue skies thinking. After all, there is also a problem somewhere in the supply chain that needs their attention. The harsh fact is that those who think of the best ideas don’t spend all their time reacting to crises.